When I told my professors about my depression

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Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?

It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.

This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:

Dear Karen,

I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.

No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing  wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.

S.

And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:

Hi Karen,

An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.

R.

The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.

Note: Taking  a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!

85 thoughts on “When I told my professors about my depression”

  1. I didn’t get such a good experience when I was at uni, but it’s so nice to see that there are good experiences out there! I hope your depression has since lifted. 🙂

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    1. I’m sorry you didn’t!! Were the professors not understanding? Perhaps mental health awareness has improved since then!

      My depression is gone, though there’s the possibility of another relapse. Thank you! 🙂

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      1. I have a personality disorder so have been in and out the system for years, some good some bad. I get used to it. Also, I’m in the UK so things can be different. There is so much stigma though, sadly, although it is on the change.

        Hopefully you won’t get a relapse. 🙂

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        1. From what I’ve heard, the stigma against personality disorders tend to be greater than against depression. While depression is often underrated as “feelings of sadness” personality disorders can seem scary to people who don’t understand. I hope things change. I’m glad you’ve come to master it, and I wish you all the best!

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  2. I applaud you for your ability to step back and take care of yourself in that tough time for you. As well as feeling a positive tide turning in acedemia to learn of your profs positive and supportive responses. Thank you for posting this story!!

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  3. Thank you for sharing this Karen. I think it really will help others to know they are no alone in struggling with mental illness, and may help give them the courage to take the steps you did!

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  4. Thank you so much for writing this; I’m so glad you found support through your professors. My sister suffers from anxiety and depression, and often has problems reaching out to professors about her situation. Her reservations about over-sharing and appearing unintelligent are almost word-for-word what you described. I am definitely passing this along to her!

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  5. Karen, thanks for sharing. I’m glad your professors were understanding (esp. the one in your major!). I remember being so afraid to tell my teachers about my depression first year and I remember not knowing how to tell them. I was scared that telling them I was depressed would be seen as like the ultimate excuse or something like that. I finally just told them what had caused it (a family friend suddenly committed suicide) and I was surprised at how they were both gentle and understanding. Glad you got a positive experience and I’m glad you’re doing better!

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  6. This is so encouraging to read. It also reveals the open door that exists when one’s skills and talents are acknowledged and appreciated, as with these very warm and sympathetic / empathetic instructors.

    Also, have you tried to snack on high anti-oxidant fruits every several hours to help ease the symptomology? They won’t solve the problem. They’ll be more like cough drops. Blackberries, blueberries and raspberries are among the list. Dark grapes and acai berries can help too.

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    1. I’m so happy your professors were understanding as it could have gone the other way. You took a chance; mental illness stigma. Thanks for liking my post. Take care. Deb

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  7. For many years, I had a friend who was diagnosed as bipolar. She told me that one of the things she had to deal with, on top of the depression when she was in that phase of the disorder, was that people in her life would not show sympathy because there was no visible sign. If she had a cast on her foot, a sling on her arm or a bandage wrapped around her skull, for example, then they would have proof that something was wrong and would show the appropriate concern. But in her case, the general attitude was that it was not medical, it was a personality defect on her part. She needed to suck it up, pick herself up by the bootstraps and get over it.

    The time period I am talking about is 20-25 years ago. I am glad that, it least in your college community, we have come a long way from those attitudes. The response of your professors was a supportive step in the right direction instead of piling on and making things worse and more anxious.

    I am happy for your praise report that the depression is gone. May the Lord bless you and continue to help you in this area of your life. Lois

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  8. I’m so glad you had the courage to speak up, and grateful for the response of compassion you received. I encountered my first bout with depression in college, and only wish I had known what was happening and sought help. Thank you for your courage to share your experiences with the rest of us as well!

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  9. This past semester I had a really tough time with anxiety and shortly after the depression came. It really affected my ability to participate in class which counted against my grades. The few times I was able to muster up the courage to participate, were not enough for the participation points in 3 of my classes. I never thought about reaching out to my professors about it. After reading this I see it would have been wise to do so. I nearly passed out when I had to do a presentation on my final project in front of my class. It got that bad. I’m glad you had the courage to reach out, this is very inspiring.

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    1. Hi, Liv! Thank you for sharing this with me. I can definitely identify with being robbed of all self-confidence/esteem to speak up in class. Most people don’t even realize that these things are but symptoms of a treatable illness, so our being honest about it might help others identify their mental illness. I hope you’re doing better!

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  10. You go! =) I think that if a professor does not empathize with someone facing mental illness, then they should not be a professor at all. I would expect any leader in academia to hold an open mind emotionally, as they are already open-minded mentally, given the rigor of academic life. The more you learn, the more you’re forced to try to understand, even when you don’t. Such a grand humility the scholar must be blessed with. Never stop learning! =)

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  11. Congratulations on being open about your depression. Mine has recently lifted significantly after 15 years of living in a fog. I hope that you continue to be well and always remember to be kind to yourself!

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  12. Thank you for sharing and I’m glad that the depression is behind you. I struggled in secret for years with my depression, including my entire time in university. I felt just like you did, I’d play Bejeweled Blitz for hours on Facebook, and when I couldn’t get words onto a word document or cram Finance formulas into my head, I’d think to myself that I was just getting really lazy but I see now that the depression effecting me more than I thought it did. I wish I’d noticed it then but at least I’m dealing with it now. Thank you again for sharing. It’s always comforting to know ‘you’re not the only one’!

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    1. Thank you for sharing this with me! Knowing so little about depression and mental illnesses in general, it was difficult for me to realize that those were symptoms of an illness, too! It was a huge relief when my counselor enlightened me in this area. Campus communities would really benefit from greater awareness about mental illness and how they affect people in very complex ways (e.g. depression is more than just about “feeling sad all the time”)! Struggling students would be able to seek diagnosis and treatment, while peers and faculty members can be more understanding and supportive. I’m glad to hear you’re dealing with it now! I am expecting a relapse in the next few months and hope I’ll be able to gain mastery over it, too.

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  13. I so admire your honesty and integrity in dealing with this. It shows strength of character and heart that you chose to reach out to profs and let them into your story. It says a lot about who you are. Thanks for the like on my blog. Thanks even more for sharing a gem of truth from your story. It’s worth its weight in gold.

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  14. I had a similar experience this semester myself and my professors were also very understanding. Thanks for sharing this online, it’s nice to read something, relate to it, and realize it is a real and complex illness. Best of luck to you!

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  15. Fortunately or unfortunately I know from experience that if you open up to people that many of us – maybe all of us – deals with some form of depression, anxiety, etc.

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    1. Yes, it’s estimated that 121 million people suffer from depression worldwide, 14.8 million being adults in America. I’m sure the figures would be even more alarming when you include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, and other crippling mental illnesses. I strongly believe that erasing stigma begins with sufferers/survivors and physicians speaking up to clear misconceptions.

      At the same time, it’s also important for the rest of the public to stop misusing words like “depressed” and “OCD” (e.g. I’m so depressed because my favorite TV show is over). It’s so prevalent, especially among the youth, that actual sufferers do not seek medical attention because they don’t realize that the debilitating emotions/thoughts they experience are in fact symptoms of a treatable medical condition.

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  16. Like many of the people commenting here, I battled depression for a few years after graduating from college. I wish I had better understood what was happening to me at the time. I did a lot of unnecessary beating up on myself for being “lazy” and “a failure”. Now I know I wasn’t. Good luck with your battle!

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  17. This is a wonderful post that all college students should read.

    I wish I had read it when I was in college, as I had depression then and would have benefited enormously form both medication and counseling.

    Thank you for your bravery and wisdom.

    Also, thank you for liking my post. Here’s to continued support and more wonderful writing in the future.

    best regards,
    Elizabeth

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  18. Hello, Karen!

    First, allow me to commend you on plucking up the courage to explain your condition to your professors. And congratulations on their understanding! I’m very glad to hear things worked out for you.

    Now may I ask how you went about explaining your condition to your professors? How did you word it, I mean?

    Because if I may say so I can relate 100% to your post, and I’m going through the same thing myself. My mom keeps urging me to talk to one of my teachers about my depression, since I have a D bordering on an F in his class. My counselor also told me that I should talk to my teachers about what I’m going through, because some might understand. I guess I’m just scared of the ones who won’t, which I think includes the teacher I mentioned earlier, because when they don’t understand then I just feel embarrassed and stupid and guilty about going to them in the first place.

    And I mean, like you said, I feel like why would he care? He’s the type of teacher who tells us that “growth over prize” is what matters, which basically means the grade in a class doesn’t matter as long as you learned something while in the class.

    I’m just not sure where to start with him, and so I’m wondering how you did it. 🙂

    Also, out of curiosity, is there any reason you emailed your professors instead of speaking to them in person?

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    1. Hi, misstrie! Thanks for dropping by and reaching out! I’m so glad you asked and I hope I’ll be able to help somehow.

      First of, I decided to email instead of speaking with them in person because I was experiencing a lot of social anxiety (it was probably part of the depression). I was worried I’d be so nervous I wouldn’t explain my condition well, etc. Plus, typing an email would allow me more time to go over it a few times and send it only when I’m ready. This is totally up to you and what you’re more comfortable with, as we all have different preferences!

      This is my email to Prof S. (from whom I was asking for a Pass/Fail instead of a letter grade):

      “Dear Professor S,

      I hope you are well! I am writing to discuss the possibility of taking up the Pass/Fail option for the X class. I wanted to let you know that I have been struggling with depression this quarter, and I have found that it has significantly impaired my work ability to work, and it has shown in the assignments and exams I have had to do for other classes. I had hoped that my situation would improve in time to produce good work for this class, which I have enjoyed, but regrettably it has not.

      May I know what your P/F policy is? Thank you, Professor! I also thank you for a great class – I regret not having been able to make the most of it this quarter.

      -Karen”

      And this is my email to Prof L. (by this time, my depression had gotten a lot worse and I was seeing a counselor):

      “Hi Professor L,

      I would like to request for an extension for assignment 3 till Thursday, and I am very sorry because I also requested one for the previous assignment.

      I admit that I wasn’t entirely honest the previous time when I attributed it to being physically ill. It was true that I was down with a flu, but the real main reason is that I have been battling depression since winter quarter. Unfortunately, it has been affecting schoolwork because it has quite seriously impeded with my ability to focus and think, and so I have been taking a lot more time to get work done. My therapist had advised me right from the beginning to inform my professors, but I was apprehensive and didn’t think it was necessary.

      My therapist, B, would be happy to explain my situation to you if you would like. She is best reached by phone at xxx-yyy-zzzz, or you could also email her at abc@xyz.com.

      I have also spoken about this with my academic adviser, J, whom I have cc-ed in this email.

      I have started taking medication, but it will take a while to find a suitable antidepressant, and in the meantime, I thank you for your understanding! Please let me know if you have any concerns/questions!

      Best,
      Karen”

      If you’re not sure how to best word it, you could perhaps talk to a school counselor (if there’s one), I’m sure they’ve helped other students navigate this too! Another great option is to have your parents write a letter to your teachers, enclosing a number they can call to find out more.

      Misstrie, I hope this helps somehow! I know it’s not an easy step to take, but just remember that it’s not an admission of defeat, but a step of courage! Feel free to email me at karen.zainal@gmail.com if you would like to get in touch with other questions/concerns!

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      1. Oh, ok, I see! Yes, this definitely helped me, Karen–thank you! And thank you for getting back to me so quickly!

        I have a better understanding of how I can approach my teacher now, and I do believe I will email him! Which I don’t know why I didn’t think of before, since part of what was holding me back was indeed something like social anxiety—having to look him in the eye and try to explain my feelings.

        Thank you again, Karen! And I will surely email you in the future, should I ever need to!

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  19. I wish I had done this when I was in school. I did tell them about my anxiety and hair-trigger tear ducts(I cry and almost anything that sets me off keel), but the anxiety was just the top of the issue. Many of my friends took terms off to get more serious help with their mental health, and I slogged through it all.
    It backfired. I’ve spent the last year trying to reclaim my life…. After graduation, things slid downhill. Everything I had pushed aside to get through class hit me at once. I paid the price.

    You are a stronger person for doing what you did. An inspiration.

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  20. This is an excellent post and I wanted to thank you for writing it. I’ve since graduated college but I went through a particularly rough time towards the end and was one of those who was afraid to speak out due to the stigma and I wish I had possessed your courage at the time. You are a great inspiration and this is a wonderful post to let others know they are not alone at a time when they perhaps feel that the most. Thank you.
    -C-

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  21. Wow, I’m really glad I ran into your blog. Excellent post, and I can definitely identify. I am reluctant to share my depression with my professors; I’m not interested in possibly getting apathetic responses. I’m glad your teachers were supportive.

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  22. I am so interested to hear about profs being open to excuses due to mental illness and to the amount of people responding to your blog. I find lots of stigma, perhaps because I have a major Axis 1 mental illness of Bipolar Disorder, and have Asperger’s Syndrome and am bisexual though now married to a man for 24 years. Anyhow you did lots of people a big service by posting this and also suggesting a leave if suicidal. Bravo!

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  23. Dear Karenzai, you are really doing well by openly talking about depression. This is a good sign of recovery as it makes one feel more confident and reassured you are not alone. Be encouraged to know others been there so can guarantee there is definitely light at the end of the longest and darkest tunnel. Do pamper and love yourself with treats of affirmation in front of the mirror, I will live to make it. Check triggers, use lots of light, create vibrant atmosphere, depression prefers safety of darkness, play favourite music eat healthy meals, no junk food as chemicals cause depression, No coffee after 6pm causes you not have deep refreshing sleep for repairing the body to keep it in good health. Spoil yourself with hot baths, rose petals, live life like you found the greatest love of your life, YOU!!! Enjoy little positive words to cancel negative ones, do not put yourself down. Thanks for reading’ I am the Lord that Healths You,’ God has already started healing by sharing your testimony with the world. Forgive and do not live in bitterness it will make you feel much better. Let God deal with anything hurting you under the cross of Christ. God bless you, You are impacting others! Godshotspot.WordPress.com.

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  24. Thank you for sharing this experience. Like so many commenters, I can very much relate. I am struggling with postpartum depression after a couple years of my longtime depression lying dormant. I’ve had trouble in the past taking that step forward to let others know about mental health problems. Especially as a new mom, I feel a lot of guilt for having such negative feelings, as familiar as they are, and few around me can relate. As I titled my recent post about this, “Postpartum Depression: Feeling Bad for Feeling Bad.”
    Good job showing others that there is support and understanding to be had when sought out.

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  25. Thank you so much for this. i just recently started going through Depression and during my finals period during school as well. This post made me feel better about discussing it with my friends and also my counselor at school and my professors. It’s the first time i have began dealing with it and I realized it’s better to let someone know early than later on. I followed your advice and I also emailed my teachers and they were understanding and I still got great grades. I am glad you are doing better too. I went to the doctor and I am feeling better.

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  26. Awesome, awesome, awesome. Thank you for sharing this and for having the courage to share your depression with your professors. And major kudos to the compassion they showed. Depression is a killer (obviously, Robin Williams). I’ve suffered from depression for a long time, but have had it under control for a number of years now. It’s but a shadow of its former self. For years I numbed my feelings with drugs and alcohol, until in March of 1999 I got clean and sober and began to face my problems head on. It took a lot of perseverance, but with the help of people in recovery and help from counselors and doctors, I am at peace most of the time now…. I don’t allow my mind to control my state of being anymore. As I like to say: The mind is a great tool, but makes a terrible master.
    Peace to you always.

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  27. I absolutely encourage folks to tell others about their illness. It was so hard for me too, but its amazing how many folks are understanding and want to help. I recently had to tell my boss, and that did not go as well at all. But I’m still glad I did it because telling her was a part of my self-care. To get accommodations, I needed to tell.

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  28. I congratulate you for your openness and honestly. I think It’s a great post for young people suffering in silence. I hope you have received the right type of advice and guidance and are in a good place right now. Take care. Hugs Paula xx

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  29. This hit really close to home for me. I also had stress triggered depression in college and it consumed to the point I had to drop out on psych leave. My professors were also very supportive but I wasn’t as brave as you to seek help from the beginning. I waited too long and was too ashamed. It’s been a long journey trying to get back to school but what I can say is that everything happens for a reason. I wish you the best of luck and that you’re able to get on the right path once more 🙂

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  30. Thank you for your honesty and fearlessness. I say fearlessness because that’s what it takes to step out of the darkness and do what’s right. God is holding your hand so don’t be afraid to fall! Blessings.

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  31. I really like the name of your blog… When I went through college I told my Chemistry adviser about having depression however he didn’t take it very seriously. At one point later on he mentioned that he didn’t think much of psychology as a discipline. If I had to do it again I wouldn’t have brought it up since it’s kind of a gamble whether a professor accepts depression as an illness or not.

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  32. What a powerful story to have shared here. You show intelligence in concealing identities, but still make the letters genuinely believable as the real deal and not fabricated.

    As someone who works everday with people dealing with mental health issues, your story is one that provides them with the hope they may be needing. Reaching out is always a sign of wisdom; reaching out early is the best course of action as it also allows others the opportunity to then understand the WHY in what someone is doing.

    A good read.

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  33. It is good you are taking great self-care of yourself. Others can support you and be there for you only for so long. For they may be carrying own crosses you may be unaware of. Reaching out to help others helps yourself too. Do trust relevant expert advise that works for you, and check small prints on any medications if recommended by your Doctor. Above all, you know yourself best to understand triggers to avoid. The woman with issue of blood spent many years consulting physicians. It cost so much money until eventually she touched the garment of the Greatest Physician Christ Jesus by pressing through the crowd and press for healing. It is good to seek help yet important and necessary to WILL to recover. Empathy helps especially when people understand depression better. You are bringing greater awareness to help greater understanding and greater support. God bless.

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  34. It’s really heartening to me to know that your profs were not only understanding but very supportive. I was in a similar situation with a class required for my major. I was doing very poorly in this class and I went to speak with my prof about it and see if I could get some extra credit or make up some assignments that were done poorly or not at all because of bipolar depression. It was nearly finals time and I knew I would need some leniency with my final project too. She was MERCILESS. She told me my bad grades were my problem and there was nothing she could (i.e. would) do for me because it was so late in the semester and I had failed to register with the university’s disabilities office (???). I even brought in a note from my doctor but she was unmoved. I almost started crying in her office. Not only did she not give me any leeway with my assignments, she didn’t even wish me well. I failed the class. It was a blessing in disguise because the prof I had for the makeup course was incredible, but some people have no compassion for those of us with “invisible” illnesses.

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  35. Aww that’s so lovely to hear that your professors were so empathetic and understanding. You write about this wonderfully. I remember a professor at my university who probably had no idea how much he helped me with his unfailing kindness. Once I missed class to see a counselor when I was struggling with anxiety, and he said to me “I was worried after not seeing you on Friday. I am so glad you are going to see a doctor. Such visits–over time–can do real wonders. It is important you take care of yourself.” Nice of you to share 🙂 Glad to see you are taking care of yourself. Writing helps!

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  36. It’s amazing how hard it is to open up because of the fear people will turn away but also amazing the responses one usually gets when you summons the courage. Congrats! Having suffered depression all my life, I congratulate you on taking the first steps. Hang in there!

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  37. I congratulate you on being open with your professors. I had a very similar experience with my professors. They were very encouraging, and as accommodating as they could be. PS – mental illness is more common than you may realize in the academic world.

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  38. Thanks for sharing your experience with depression. I am a professor, and I have also struggled with depression for many years. It is so difficult to find the energy to even do the most routine daily tasks when depression takes hold. I’m so glad to hear that your professors were understanding and that the general public is more aware that depression is a mental illness and not a condition that can be easily overcome by pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps! It’s also not a condition that indicates laziness or a lack of faith in God. I was always so relieved when I found an understanding therapist and psychiatrist!

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